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Taken for Granted: Intimate Collaborators

Maybe it's the long hours in the lab. Maybe it's the allure of putting heads together to analyze data. Maybe it's those sexy lab coats. Whatever the reason, scientists appear to find each other attractive as romantic partners. Women scientists, in fact, are likelier than their counterparts in any other academic area to pair off with a departmental colleague. A Stanford University survey of 30,000 faculty members at 13 major research universities found 83% of the female scientists partnered with members of their own discipline.

"I jokingly tell my graduate students, be careful who you partner with," says Londa Schiebinger, lead author of the study, titled Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Needs to Know , and director of Stanford's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. "When women are professionals, they come much more often than men as part of a dual-career couple."

The struggle to accommodate a partner's needs in career decisions drives some people to end their relationship.

Thanks to another female predilection revealed by the survey, the ramifications of romantic choices often spread from love life to work life. "The top reason women refuse new job opportunities is that their partners are not offered satisfactory positions" in the new location, the study reports. Although the data cover only tenure-track faculty members and the report takes the viewpoint of institutions competing to recruit topflight talent, the findings nonetheless provide useful insights for those who have not -- and may never -- land a faculty post.

Market forces

Some of the results are unsurprising. Couples in the same discipline share intellectual interests, and especially professional networks, far more than those in different fields. Both kinds of sharing can, of course, help advance careers.

Furthermore, in science, as elsewhere, partnering with a star can boost career prospects. Prominent universities, the report reveals, will go to considerable lengths to land a highly desirable hire. Depending on how badly a university wants an individual, its offer may include an appealing position for the partner. For example, the report relates, Duke University wanted to hire computer scientist Susan Rodger away from her tenure-track position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. The offer included a visiting professor position for her husband, Thomas Narten -- also a computer scientist -- who was then on the tenure track at the State University of New York, Albany. Already interested in investigating nonacademic opportunities, he used the period of the temporary appointment at Duke to secure a position with nearby IBM.

Who knew that top universities generally actually have offices and programs, and even special funds dedicated to finding or devising jobs for the all-important partners of sought-after candidates? Those opportunities may be in the university's own faculty or administration or at another nearby employer. To provide local openings for new hires' partners at neighboring institutions, more than 300 universities and colleges, the report indicates, belong to one of 13 regional Higher Education Recruitment Consortia.

But, Schiebinger warns, even the most marketable academic cannot procure a plum academic post for a partner who lacks convincing credentials. A spouse's pull may get someone consideration for a job, but high-quality universities take on only partners who meet their general standards. Any twofer deal therefore "depends on the marketability of both partners," she says. Many partner offers at universities, the report notes, may therefore involve positions in the nebulous realm of temporary research associates or lecturers, or in administration.

"Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't work," Schiebinger says. If it doesn't, partners may find themselves left to their own devices to seek work in a strange town that may lack appropriate opportunities. That's probably why, among respondents paired with other academics, 54% of the women and 41% of the men reported losing professional mobility because of a couple considerations -- rates higher than those reported by academics whose partners work in nonacademic fields or who are not in the labor market. In addition, the report notes, "more than 20 percent of both men and women who were part of a dual hire report that they or their partners have taken a position at a less prestigious institution in order to improve the couple's overall employment situation."

Finding a fit

The struggle to accommodate a partner's needs in career decisions drives some people to end their relationship. Others decide to become "commuting" couples with jobs in different cities. But among those determined to live together, the burden of accommodation falls unequally on the two genders. Women, data show, are much likelier than men to reject a position where there's no suitable post for the significant other. The researchers are not sure why this happens, but at every rank and in every kind of relationship, men more often see their own careers as the couple's primary one. The women academics surveyed, on the other hand, overwhelmingly judge their partner's career as equal in importance to their own.

Surprisingly, this belief increases as women rise in academic rank, with 54% of female assistant professors and 62% of female full professors rating the two careers as equally important. One-third of the female assistant professors, 29% of female associate professors, and only 27% of female full professors rate their own careers as more important than their partner's. Could this trend reflect age, with older women in higher positions holding attitudes of a bygone era? Or does it show that women increasingly see their careers matching their partner's in importance as their prestige and earning power grow? Whatever the reason, the opposite is true for men: The higher they go, the more they see their own career as primary, with 57% of assistant professors and 63% of full professors holding that view.

"It's shocking, isn't it?" Schiebinger says. "Women and men need to know this." Even men who "look at their partner's career equally should realize that that woman is not ... pushing her career forward. I think it's very important for men and women to understand how they think differently about these things."

For some male respondents, they report, it "boiled down to the simple fact that they make more money than do their partners." A professor who far out-earns his wife said, for example, "If it had been the other way around, we would have done the opposite." The researchers suggest that "cultural cues" may encourage "men [to] overreport and women [to] underreport the importance each attributes to his or her own career. ... A certain modesty is often expected of women, and even women who are the lead partner in a relationship have been taught, sometimes through hard experience, not to say so."

Breaking the news

For early-career scientists trying for a tenure-track job, the report offers useful guidance on how to handle the partner question. Universities today just "kind of assume that people have partners," Schiebinger says. "Some of them will be academic, some of them will be professional, and [all will] need to relocate to this new community. I think that faculties and departments and universities are pretty ready for this these days."

Nonetheless, "young people should not say too soon [in the hiring process] that they have a partner," she warns. "A candidate walks a tightrope between not mentioning it too soon and ... not being dishonest and giving the university the opportunity to respond. It's just the reality today. ... We found in our survey that most people will say that they have a partner sometime during the interview. But I personally still advise my graduate students to not mention it until they have an offer." Waiting may complicate matters for the university, but it prevents candidates from hurting their chances by introducing "additional baggage" early on, Schiebinger says.

It's important to think strategically because, even though the application process will disappoint many aspirants to academic careers, "some graduate students and postdocs will get jobs" and have to negotiate the partner issue with a university, Schiebinger says. That's why the Clayman Center is currently developing material for graduate students entering the academic job market. In the meantime, she advises aspiring academics to read the report, which is available free on the Internet, so that they can get the benefit of "knowing what is the process, how do faculty jobs come about, how do universities work, who should I turn to, who is going to broker the deal in the university, so who should I be talking to there. And when, absolutely, should I mention a partner?"

Universities' current willingness to consider accommodating dual-career couples -- at least the ones that include an academic they badly want to hire -- represents a truly major change from policies of decades past. Nepotism rules formerly forbade spouses from holding faculty posts in the same department or even the same university. Brilliant researchers such as biochemist Gerty Radnitz Cori and physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer were shunted off to lesser positions or institutions while their husbands, with degrees and publications no better than their own, held prestigious professorships. Both women won Nobel Prizes, Goeppert-Mayer on her own and Cori in conjunction with her husband. That same year, Washington University in St. Louis promoted Gerty Cori from research assistant to full professor.

Times have changed, but the complexities of belonging to a two-scientist couple remain, though in different forms. Fashioning two scientific careers in the same place in a brutal job market is a formidable challenge. The effort of elite institutions to add the lure of a partner's job to the offers they make to a chosen few will not help the majority of applicants who are outside a select circle. It may even hurt some excellent scientists by earmarking jobs for the partners of stars. But anyone with a crack at a good academic job, who also has a partner seeking a scientific career, would nonetheless do well to learn how this system works.

Text corrected, 14 May 2010

Photo: (top) Luigi Morante

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